Al Williams Passes the Johnny Walker Talking Stick

George Korolog

Back then, summer was made of real dirt, tough dirt, crushed stone bitch like the rock it came from, a coating of shattered shale, a creeping sepsis that blackened everything on the way down, far beneath the old stories that had already been deeply bruised. They still tried to hide themselves behind the fingernails, pretending that there was no way they could be seen, the deeply tattooed whorls, the body ink that hinted of a mockery that marked the far end of the conversation, in the place where expectations met reality.

When you boiled it down to the basics, it was all about an attitude with attitude. Fuck him, fuck you, fuck me and yes, fuck it all. Fuckit. Fuckitall. We knew the game. We lived to bathe ourselves in our imperfections. We held them up in front of our faces, fanning our flaws up through our nostrils with flashy French inhales. Cool incarnate. We blew out droll melodies on the exhale, reminding ourselves that there was a kind of pathetic humor in futility. Yep, motherfucking fuck it Jocko.

Each day, our factory folklore ended with a whimper, lapping nonchalantly on the cusp of the last story. It was all tribal mythology. A hero died at midnight and was re-born every morning right at the base of the time clock. Right there on the fucking warped Linoleum. You knew it was coming. You accepted it and you just moved on. Time to get to work.

After our shift, we’d fight it off with two quarts of Annie Green Spring Apple Jack, or if we got some overtime, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black from the package store on the corner of Grant and Jefferson. We’d pass around the jug, a hunk of fat sweaty glass in a crumpled brown bag, each sipping in turn, in the midnight heat, the thick cork dust from the corners of our mouth rimming the lip. This was our Church, where we would partake of our own communion, on our knees in our own way, the glowing cherry-blue and green reflections from the pew-less streets igniting our faces. This was where the holy angels hid, in the alleys and corners, down here with us, dirty little cherubs riding the waves of neon with pink and amber wings. This was where we heard the liturgy.

Al would lean back, arching like a tightly strung bow, all sinew, and flash that smile, the big one that made you grin from somewhere deep inside that didn’t exist until you met him. He had four women, nine children and a lime green nineteen fifty-eight Cadillac convertible. He also had a way with a story. We all laughed when he spelled it out, Napoleon Brown had been arrested the week before for murdering his best friend with a baseball bat. Came into work the following day and clocked in where the police were standing around reading the sports page and drinking coffee, waiting for him at the time clock. Just a kid. Just like that. Beat his best friend to death with a baseball bat and came into work the next day. Shit, the job was everything. All we could do was laugh.

Al passed the half empty bottle and kept talking, tonguing the crags at the sharp corners of his mouth, halfway between a smirk and a smile, like a crafty preacher, saying that if it’s not your time, then you just got to stay, no choice, like when Marshal Cleveland’s woman punched a rusted steak knife in his back thirteen times when he come home mean and pissed on the floor. Motherfucker wouldn’t die. Al said it was no big thing. Not nothing at all. The good Lord makes those decisions, so Marshall been excused for a while longer. He been back on the dayshift since April, up in the feeding room, loading them cork bales in the mill so fast that they have to shut it down every two hours and call the Millwright. Loads it so fast, it jams and he just sittin in the break room, looking fine at the window, sipping.

When the mosquitoes from the river got nasty, we’d light up a few fat cattails, stick em in the cracks between the pilings and bathe our bodies in the sweet smoke hanging from the docks. Talked about the day Garfield had lost his head when the guide wires on the tram rail split and the cab fell to the ground. Ten stories they said. Sheared his head clean off when he was thrown through the front windshield when the cables, wires, glass and sheet metal arrived on the ground together to end the story. Cleese Coates nodded, said that one of his friends had been on the swing shift and had seen Garfield’s head bounce over the rails and land next to the cork bails stacked beside the empty semi’s. We all mumbled, said our prayers and thanked the Lord that it wasn’t our time, wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our shift and glad as hell that we didn’t put in for the tram driver job for a flimsy fucking raise of sixty two cents an hour driving that piece of shit.

Tough was what you wore cause nothing else fit. Straightforward. Skin tight. Just leave it at that. Done was done. Done, the proper noun. A way of life that seeped into every pore of your body until you surrendered into it and allowed your body to be carried out on a litter, through the streets, even though the crowd had long vanished and there was no one left to watch you pass. There was no one left to cheer and you really didn’t give a shit. Fuck em all. You gathered with your remaining friends at the end of the day and drank, told stories and pretended to be shamans. We thought we knew everything, but also knew that it was pointless to do anything about it. Just ride it. Keep moving or ride it into the ground. Come next June, when Spring semester ends, I’m coming back for the Summer. I’m going to change back into these tattered threads and I’m going to find my way back home, straight up.

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George Korolog is a San Francisco Bay Area poet and writer whose work has been widely published in journals such as The Los Angeles Review, The Southern Indiana Review, Word Riot, The Monarch Review, Naugatuck River Review, Poets and Artists Magazine, The Journal of Modern Poetry, Connotation Press, Grey Sparrow Journal and many others. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has also been nominated for Best of the Net. His first book of poetry, “Collapsing Outside the Box,” was published by Aldrich Press in November 2012 and is available on Amazon. His second book of poems, “Raw String” was published in October, 2013 by Finishing Line Press. He is currently working on his third book of poetry, “The Little Truth.”